May 21, 2015

the HAES® files: On the Cushion and Off the Hook — An Exploration of Yoga, Meditation, and Body Positivity

by Health At Every Size® Blog

by Rachel Smith

I remember the exact moment when I realized that real growth had nothing at all to do with the size of my body. I was sitting in a meditation center with my teacher, listening to him answer questions as I worked to let go of the constant, body-shaming, diet-obsessed, “I will never be good enough,” noise in my head. I took a deep breath, one of many as I had been practicing regular meditation for quite a while at that point, and I felt something release in my heart. A huge sense of freedom and relief rushed through my body. “Oh,” I thought. And that was it. As clear as day, I knew in no uncertain terms that I was fundamentally OK exactly as I was in that moment. The trauma and drama in my head just dissolved, and not in the way I thought it would. The transformation I had been seeking didn’t turn out to be, “Get skinny. Become enlightened.” Shocking, I know.

To be honest, I really did believe on some deep-down level, that if I just “figured it out,” I would find the key to inner peace and it would include magical weight loss, the perfect diet, and the side benefit of cosmic wisdom that I could dole out with great beneficence to those other poor souls who hadn’t figured it out yet. I would be the perfect package. I really wanted that to be the case, which is probably why it took me so long to finally let go. What ended up happening, despite my long-standing resistance to the idea, was acceptance. Total, radical, open-hearted, acceptance. In my yoga tradition, we call this kind of acceptance “surrender.” Not surrender as in giving up and rolling over, but surrender as letting it all go. All of it — all of who we think we are, all of what we wish was true (or not true), all of our magical thinking, all of the competition and comparison, all of the insecurity and brain damage, all of it. This is no small feat, and in my experience has happened and continues to happen in drips and drabs, but I know that it is possible and that these little moments of surrender are utterly life-changing. This particular moment of surrender changed not only my relationship to food and my body, but to everything, and I mean everything, else in my life.

This moment of surrender was most definitely brought on by a regular meditation practice. This just happens. It is the power and promise of yoga. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means, “to yoke.” It means union. It is the spiritual equivalent of the message from that Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” If you practice meditation, you will begin to gradually re-unite with your Self. Yoga is a science of the mind that is over 5000 years old, designed to help us “yoke,” or unite, with who we really are – The Inner Self, Shiva, God. The word you use for a higher power is less important than the experience of connecting to that energy.

Yoga is handed down through living teachers, and its practices are available for all of us to use. In the West, we have co-opted the word yoga to mean primarily the physical practice of yoga postures, or asana. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good yoga pose too, and I think that yoga asana is an incredible tool for getting in touch with the body, but it is a very small part of what yoga actually is. In the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, there is one mention of asana and basically it says to sit down so you can meditate! The practice of asana has evolved to include a wide range of physical practices which, at their most useful, can help us to calm the nervous system and quiet the body so we can begin a meditation practice. Then the real fun begins. In yoga, meditation is the ultimate way to surrender, and the way to what my teacher calls Sat-Chit-Ananda: Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. Imagine being able to just BE in a state of total consciousness and total bliss. Sign me up!

Modern science has a lot to say about meditation and mindfulness. It is good for our health in very concrete, measurable ways. Meditation has been shown to reduce blood pressure, stroke risk, heart disease, chronic pain, depression, anxiety, and symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It has also been shown to elevate mood, increase memory, improve learning, and aid concentration. These are some pretty amazing benefits, especially given that meditation is essentially being still and breathing, but these are actually just the beginning! In my own experience, meditation offers the tools to open my heart, let go of what doesn’t serve me, and grow into a more functional, happy, embodied human being. This is a continuous process, not an overnight cure, and I am a work in progress. I am not enlightened (yet!). But I do know that I have come a long way from where I was yesterday, last week, a year ago, or 8 years ago. For me, the most visible, tangible growth, the thing that I can point to and say, “Wow, I am so much better,” has been my relationship with my body and my Self. It has not been what I expected, and I would not change it for the world.

So, how does one get started with a meditation practice? First, you should know that if you breathe, you qualify. Anyone can meditate and there are no requirements that you be anything other than who you are, in this moment, right now. There are many schools of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness out there. Choose one that resonates with you, and go for it!     If you are doing it right, your “stuff” will come up, which, believe it or not, is the point. My terrible relationship with my body came up and I am grateful that it did! When our stuff comes up, that means we can work with it in meditation and ultimately surrender it. Eventually, because it’s just the way it works, you too will have an experience of freedom from the things that bind you. As my teacher says, “We all have within us this divinity which is radiating and shining like a sun, and we just have to turn our attention in that direction every day with a sense of surrender, a sense of love, a sense of devotion, and the clouds will part and we will bask in this radiant, joyous bliss–it’s called ananda, and it exists for everyone.”[1] It exists for you. It exists for me. And it is life-changing to see that you are so much more than you ever thought was possible.

[1] Sri Shambhavananda (2005). A Seat by the Fire: Spiritual Discussions with Sri Shambhavananda. SGRY. Prakasha Press, Rollinsville, C


RachelSmithRachel Dhanya Smith is a psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and yoga teacher specializing in helping women to live happy, empowered, embodied lives. She offers body positive counseling and coaching in person and online, and is currently planning meditation, yoga, and body image workshops across the U.S. Her approach is creative, warm, and fun! She will be at the ASDAH Conference in July, so come and say, “Hi!” Give her a shout if you would like to start your own journey to a happy, embodied life! You can learn more about Rachel and her practice at www.bigheartcounseling.com.

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